A London public art trip: Peter Peri, Willi Soukop and the Royal Festival Hall

A couple of months ago I was lucky enough to spend a day in London in the expert company of Dr Dawn Pereira and Rosamund West, two researchers with backgrounds and ongoing research interests in public art and the London County Council (LCC): Dawn’s PhD work on William Mitchell and Anthony Hollaway as design consultants for the LCC was a major catalyst for my interest in post-war public art as a subject for academic study, and Rosamund is currently undertaking a PhD at Kingston University about public art commissions on post-war LCC housing estates.

We started at the Royal Festival Hall, where we saw the collaborative ‘festival quilt’. This large (although easy to miss – I’d never seen it before, despite visiting the Festival Hall on a number of occasions) artwork is composed of squares contributed by women’s groups from across the country commemorating landmark events, figures, inventions and developments in British history, from the 1851 Great Exhibition (the Festival of Britain, for which the quilt was commissioned, followed 100 years later) to the invention of the sewing machine, to cultural phenomena such as jazz and cinema, in a variety of styles. It’s full of detail and visual appeal and has aged well; it’s one of the quirkier aspects of this landmark building, which is well worth a look as a cultural document of the interests and values of a time and as a participatory, collaborative piece of art created by ‘ordinary people’. We also saw ‘Sunbathers’, a work by the Hungarian artist Peter Peri from the Festival of Britain which, after years of being lost and neglected, has been recently restored and resited high-up in the Festival Hall following a public awareness and funding campaign. Its athletic, interlinked figures now gleam pristinely in the nude, yet are strangely anonymous in their terracotta-coloured concrete.

Although sculpture was less popular among buyers at Pictures for Schools than paintings, prints and embroideries (mainly, probably, because it was more expensive and less easy to site in the school), Peter Peri was a regular exhibitor at Pictures for Schools. His work was, in its realism and everyday subject matter, such as small-scale sculptural depictions of children at play and leisure, characteristic of the mood and style of the exhibitions.

Peri’s work was part of a wider context of realist art promoted by critics such as John Berger for its accessibility and humanism; it emerged out of a context of politicised networks of artists such as the Artists’ International Association, founded in the 1930s, which worked to promote the status of the artist in society, provide employment for artists, raise public appreciation and increase opportunities to enjoy the arts, and to create social change through art. Peri was prolific in his public commissions for patrons such as schools and local authorities; writing in the New Statesman in the 1950s, Berger argued that, far from fitting into the fashionable London art world, his work came into its own when situated in workaday settings such as the school.For me, the most effective work we saw by Peter Peri on the tour was that which was still part of the fabric of the places where it was first situated. The best work of his we saw was ‘Following the Leader’ (1949), a relief on the exterior of a central stairwell of an otherwise nondescript earlier block of flats in a now-gentrified area of Vauxhall. Utilising coloured concrete, it depicts a ring of children ascending the brickwork hand-in-hand, tendons stretched and hair and skirts blowing in the wind. Although apparently simple, the feeling with which Peri has moulded the faces of the children, and the sense of play, movement, youth and vitality, he creates, gives it a quality which is touching and timeless. His real skill was to communicate a sense of relatability and humanity in these figures, despite their scale and necessarily being viewed from a distance.Although commemorating a sombre subject, children lost in the Blitz, it has less of the naivety and idealisation of motherhood, youth and childhood that characterised much of the work of the social realist genre, and which can be seen in his ‘Children Playing’ (1951-2) and in the exaggeratedly healthy, muscular figures of ‘Boys Playing Football’ (1951-2), two exterior murals on the nearby South Lambeth Estate.

We were fortunate to be able to see all these works in situ; the significance of all these artworks, and the social, historical and political context in which they were commissioned, has now been recognised by their listing, as part of a wider drive by Historic England to recognise and promote the public art of the period. However, the scale of gentrification of the once working-class areas of south London we visited was stark – like many across London, several of the estates were awaiting or had already undergone a process of redevelopment, with former council developments replaced with housing aimed at a far wealthier demographic, and now largely removed from the social purpose for which it was intended, and the democratic and inclusive spirit in which the artworks were commissioned.

One victim of this process of rebuilding was a 1956 concrete mural by Willi Soukop (another European emigre who exhibited at Pictures for Schools), inspired by the story of the Pied Piper yet noticeably more abstract in its shapes and style than the work of Peri, previously situated on a community hall on the Elmington estate in Camberwell. Although its value had been recognised enough for it to be retained and incorporated into a new development once the hall was demolished, it had been hidden behind foliage in a new nature garden, surrounded by modern flats, where its visual impact was considerably lessened.

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